Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell. Photo by Stevie and Sarah Gee, courtesy of Grandstand Media
This year I figured out a streaming music setup that works well for my old car—an amusingly anachronistic tape-adapter-with-bluetooth-connection. You read that right, I send music from a smartphone to a cassette tape to play in my aging Subaru wagon. (If this is not the most “elder millennial” thing, I don’t know what is.) This contraption, finally, has opened up my drive-time listening from the plastic log of horribly scratched CD-Rs in my console, to the seemingly endless buffet of music that is modern streaming. And while I had big hopes to get into some new bands this year, I mostly used it to listen to Band of Horses’ Things Are Great.
BoH released three great albums in the aughts—Everything All the Time, Cease to Begin, and Infinite Arms—all albums I gave heavy rotation. I lost touch with them in the teens as they seemed to abandon their shimmering anthemic sound for something jammier. I spun their newer albums once each waiting for them to catch traction. No dice. So, I did not expect I’d be listening to a BoH album this year so much that Spotify’s “Wrapped” assessment seemed less like a celebration, and more like a wellness check.
Things are Great is indeed great, a return to form for BoH that lends their signature sound, a sound that once galloped open spaces with youthful romance, to the relatable trot of now-times adult interiority—enduring life changes while getting older, weathering the pandemic, reconciling with family history, and making sense of political polarization. “Things are Great”—that tragically ironic thing to say when you couldn’t possibly explain the mess underneath, is indeed the album’s well-earned punchline. Ben Bridwell uses every track to unpack the mess, and makes that big sound feel a lot like ownership—against the grain of quiet desperation in the age of manicured public image.
Another great album that expresses the struggle to come to terms with one’s place within or without the frothy soup of humanity is Daniel Rossen’s You Belong There. Rossen is half of Grizzly Bear’s songwriting duo, and You Belong There highlights his contributions to Grizzly Bear’s somewhat eclectic output, while taking his own internally cohesive and specific direction. GB albums Yellow House, Shields, and Painted Ruins are among my favorites. You will find references to Rossen’s self-imposed rural exile on Painted Ruins, GB’s most recent album. You may also note some of Rossen’s explorations into syncopated Steely Dan-style rhythms and harmonies, and rich, layered, classical guitar arpeggios. These aspects form the aesthetic core of You Belong There. Rossen creates a lush wilderness of guitars, woodwinds, and vocal harmonies, but doesn’t simply revel in escape. The peopled world he left behind looms large, at turns everything and nothing, and Rossen meditates on it less with the eager wisdom of a Thoreau and more with the sly self-questioning of a Frost. Technically this is Rossen’s first full-length solo album, at once a fully realized bold personal statement of an album that is nonetheless one to get completely lost in.
Speaking of albums to get lost in—when I’m not in the car, I will often listen to albums like some might take a bath. That is—I lay down, I let it wash over me, I drift in and out of thoughts, I fall asleep and wake up. It’s a whole thing. You Belong There was this year’s bath album. Last year’s was Sufjan Stevens’ and Angelo De Augustine’s A Beginner’s Mind. The year before that it was Adrienne Lenker’s Instrumentals from her double album Songs and Instrumentals. Before that it was also Adrienne on Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. This year, instead of releasing an aesthetically cohesive album, Big Thief released Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, a sprawling and eclectic grab bag of music that would be anyone else’s greatest hits album.
Lenker brings all her pet themes together on Dragon from wet-eyed intimacy and swerving sexuality to quaking poems on loss and grief, from barn-burning reminiscences of rural life to a menagerie of mysterious metaphorical animals. Big Thief is multitudes. They’ve often organized those multitudes into separate releases on previous albums to capture essential vibes, but here they’ve embraced the many shades—that have made them my own personal poet laureates of rock—into a single stream that is nonetheless a masterpiece of pacing, making its 80-minute runtime feel breezy. I’ve never been able to come up with a good “desert island” album before. This, finally, with all its moving depth and requisite variety, might be the one. | Mike McCubbins